But unlike so many of Trump’s earlier presidential lies, this time his claims about voter fraud and stolen elections haven’t been uniformly echoed across the GOP. Major Republican figures who previously parroted absurd talking points — including former press secretary Sean Spicer and adviser Chris Christie — are rejecting this round of disinformation. That’s because, this time, Americans knew what to expect, both from Election Day and from Trump. The president’s lies haven’t been widely adopted — largely because we had learned to expect them.
Even a few months ago, it wasn’t clear that matters would unfold this way. To explore some of the ways the 2020 election might go off the rails, I helped organize a series of exercises in June simulating potential disruptions to a free, fair and peaceful election and transition. These exercises involved scores of experts from both political parties, and we looked at multiple election night scenarios, including a decisive Biden win, a decisive Trump win, a narrow Biden win and a period of extended uncertainty. In every exercise except the decisive Trump win, the team playing the Trump campaign and its elected GOP allies sought to do precisely what the president is doing right now: make baseless claims about voter fraud, frame Biden votes as somehow illegitimate, assert that Democrats are seeking to steal the election, and take both legal and extralegal action to undermine Americans’ faith in the electoral outcome.
In most of our simulations, the nation moved rapidly after that toward chaos and constitutional impasse.
But such exercises aren’t prophecies or road maps to the future. Instead, this kind of project is designed to test assumptions, explore worst-case scenarios and identify ways to avert disaster. Today, there is far less reason to fear a political catastrophe than there was in June, for the simple reason that the many efforts to ring warning bells about Trump’s likely attempts to undermine the election results were successful: Thousands of Americans acted to mitigate the risks.
As a result, people today are more sophisticated about voting and the vote-counting process than they were six months ago. Most voters understood that getting the results fast isn’t as important as getting them right. Many grasped that in-person votes favored Trump, partly because he advocated against voting by mail, and that mail-in votes favored Biden — and that the order in which those were counted could make the results appear to shift. Responsible media outlets, even on the right, also responded to Trump’s premature claims of victory with appropriate skepticism, especially since Biden’s lead continued to grow. “This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,” Fox News anchor Chris Wallace said after Trump’s statement in the middle of the night Tuesday. “He hasn’t won the states; nobody is saying he’s won the states; the states haven’t said that he’s won.”
Here, too, things have changed since our June election simulations. During our exercises, the participants playing GOP leaders rallied around Trump, repeating and amplifying his false claims about fraud and stolen elections. Today, things look quite different: Even close Trump allies are quietly — and sometimes not so quietly — reminding the president that in our democracy, every ballot should be counted. Trump-friendly Fox News also called key states for Biden before other news organizations did.
“Taking days to count legally cast votes is NOT fraud,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “You have to let the process play itself out,’ urged Christie. Former Republican senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) called Trump’s fraud claims distressing and “wrong.” Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) weighed in with an implied rebuke of Trump’s premature assertion of electoral victory: “Claiming you win the election is different from finishing the counting.” Perhaps these Republican officials understand what Trump himself does not: The Republican Party is bigger than Trump, and there will be many more tight elections in the future. What goes around, comes around; in the long term, the GOP can’t afford to become the party that opposes a full and fair vote count. (Indeed, seeing Trump trailing in Arizona, it was Republicans insisting that every vote should be counted.)
Trump himself had infamously refused to commit to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power if he lost, and recent threats of violence from extremist far-right nationalist groups made it clear to all Americans that the stakes in this election are exceptionally high. Paradoxically, all this may have helped reinforce the commitment of most ordinary citizens to ensuring that our voting processes be allowed to proceed freely and fairly.
We’re not out of the woods yet; the violent right-wing extremists Trump emboldened won’t vanish overnight. But if mainstream media outlets, Fox and top GOP leaders acknowledge a Biden win, the odds of a peaceful and orderly transition are high, no matter what Trump says. If Biden is certified as the winner when Congress meets in joint session on Jan. 6, whether Trump “accepts” it doesn’t matter.
So Trump’s false claims about fraud and election theft now seem increasingly desperate and doomed. “They are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it,” the president tweeted early Wednesday.
Who does Trump think stole the election? The voters?
There’s a fundamental fact about democracy that Trump seems never to have understood: Americans get to cast votes to choose their president — but the president doesn’t get to choose which of those votes should count. And the “we” who will “never” let the election be stolen? That’s “We, the People of the United States.” And we know that no matter what Trump tweets, our Constitution says that we’re the ones who get to have the final word.
This story has been updated since it was first published.